School Horses

Blackjack the School Horse

There’s nothing quite like the feeling of warm sunshine on your face as you connect with the horse that carries you.

Every time I get back in the saddle, I feel my body exhale a sigh of relief. Sometimes life gets away from me, and too much time passes between horseback riding lessons. But I am always so relieved to be back in the barn because a part of my soul can shine there in a way that it doesn’t anywhere else.

School horses are what they call the dependable horses, the ones that the people who don’t have their own horses ride. I am one of those people. It’s a dream of mine to have a horse of my own one day, a dream I am utterly determined to achieve. But until then, I love to reflect on all the school horses of my past and the gifts they have given me.

In high school, I experienced heartbreak and loss that left me dazed in emotional wreckage. Horseback riding was a constant, a release, and a place of healing. The best part for me has always been the connection with the animal; that’s why it has been difficult to not have a consistent horse in my life, yet I still gain so much.

When thinking about writing my college essay back in 2018, I knew exactly what I wanted to say. I wanted to illuminate a thread through my experiences inside and outside of the barn. The result is one of my favorite pieces I’ve ever written—still to this day, even though it’s almost four years later. Here it is:

Before I had time to process that this was probably as close as I would ever come to flying, I landed butt-first on the ground thinking, Did that really just happen? The first time I fell off a horse, I was stunned. Quint, a mischievous, old chestnut, was the first horse I rode when I started horseback riding in seventh grade. When I was just learning to canter, he took advantage of my imbalance. He launched into a gallop, and I jerked forward. I was both startled and hurt because I could not understand how something I loved so much could let me fall. Nevertheless, I stood up, brushed the dirt off my butt, popped my boot in the stirrup, and swung myself back onto Quint.

Although it’s a dream of mine, I don’t have my own horse, so throughout my years at the barn, I have jumped from one horse to another. As an animal person, this has been difficult for me because I have experienced exceptional joy and loss, but I have been robbed of the intimacy that comes with riding the same horse each time. Four horses have touched my life significantly and have opened my eyes to who I am.

Nat and I had a connection. When he saw me, recognition filled his heart and joy filled mine. Although he was a big horse, he never made me feel small. With Nat, I felt it click for the first time. Riding together, we were like ocean waves, seamless and mesmerizing. Without warning, I found out that Nat had passed away. I felt the tips of my limbs go numb, my lungs unable to take in air. No longer would I feel the click of his strong body underneath mine. Questions invaded my mind like parasites. Will I ever find that again? I struggled with this thought. But then I met Candee.

Candee’s back had a deeper arch than the average horse. On her back were spots where her coat had faded away and all that was left was her smooth skin. Feeling the pain she must have felt, I gently ran my fingertips along the scars and across the nicks on her face. When we rode together, we were one, and with every strenuous exhalation came appreciation for each other and the rhythm we created. She embodied true beauty and strength. As I rested my forehead against hers, I cupped my hands under her nose, so soft and vulnerable yet so strong and muscular, feeling the warmth of her breath on my palms. The pain from her past dissipated with each breath. One day, when I couldn’t find Candee, I was told that she had been retired and relocated to a different barn. She, too, had been plucked from my life. But through Candee, I realized that love after crippling loss is possible. Just as people leave my life, I lose horses I cherish, but accepting the time I’m given with them is essential in moving forward and shaping my pain into growth.

Once, while riding Midge, a novice like me, he lost his footing. I jerked forward, but this time, I refused to let go. My legs shot straight out behind me. I flung my hands around his neck, putting all of my trust in him. At the last second, he saved us and caught his footing, and my body swung out of the saddle. My arms were straight up, my hands folded over his neck as my feet dangled inches from the ground. While I was suspended, almost flying, I thought back to Quint with gratitude. Falling off showed me the importance of fighting to hold on. I let go and slid onto the ground next to him. I stood up tall, brushed a strand of hair from my face, popped my boot in the stirrup, and swung myself back onto Midge.

The more I ride, the more I understand just why they are called school horses. Even though I’m excited for the day I have my own horse, I will never forget the lessons that mutliple horses have taught me. This is why I never get angry when a horse is lazy. I’m still so grateful because I think about how that horse has dedicated their life to enriching the lives of people like me. They’ve earned—at the very minimum—laziness.

I learned at my first barn to never take off your helmet before you take off your horse’s saddle. If you’re sweaty and uncomfortable, think about how hot the horse feels. I still do this every time I ride. Not until my horse is untacked will I take my helmet off or take a sip of water. I honor the time and patience that the horses give me every week. That, and lots of apples, are small ways I can repay my debt to such wonderful creatures that have filled my life in a way nothing else can.

I will definitely be writing more horseback riding content, so follow along if you are interested!

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